The pandemic of 2020 was beyond awful. The repercussions COVID had on our lives and society are still noticeable to this day. 99.9% of this era was negative, but for a moment let’s concentrate on the 0.1% that was positive and changed the future of the Dallas Stars.
As the NHL went into the bubble, crowned a champion, and then played a regular season unlike any other, the next generation was attempting to find a path to keep their careers heading in a forward direction. An entire season of junior hockey, college hockey and overseas leagues were canceled or disrupted. There were few to any quantifiable updates on up-and-coming prospects. This is the reason no draft will ever be as wild and unpredictable as the 2021 entry draft. Somehow, this chaos played right into the hands of the Dallas Stars. A little luck helped as well.
Good hockey scouts are vigilant and can start a file on players as young as 14 years old. Watching players progress and projecting their ceiling is a very inexact science. Usually as prospects mature, patterns become apparent and elite players are more easily pinpointed. Without the 2020-21 season to showcase talent, these past files and a solid consensus on which player would blossom into NHL talent would be the only guide for how to conduct a draft.
Three members of the Stars organization, Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell, Amateur Scout Jimmy Johnston, and current Director of Player Personnel Rich Peverley had all watched the progression of Wyatt Johnston during his pre-draft years. The trio believed Johnston had something special, and based on his projected upside, would be a worthy first round pick.
This is where the disruption caused by COVID helped the Stars. During his first season with the Windsor Spitfires, Johnston played 53 games and scored a respectable 30 points (12-18-30). It was enough to garner notice, but not impressive enough to vault him to the top spot on most scouting lists. Had he played another season before his draft year, it’s almost a certainty that Wyatt would have been rated much higher than the sixteenth best player in North America, according to Central Scouting. As his last season in the OHL showed, the kid was ready to take off.
There was one more area where luck shined on Dallas. The only major international event in 2021 for draft-eligible players was the U-18 World Championships, hosted by the Stars in Frisco and Plano, Texas. Under normal circumstances, most of the top players in Canada are vying for the Memorial Cup and do not participate in this tournament. Because there was no CHL season, Canada was able to assemble “The U-18 Dream Team,” as described by Team Canada Forward Logan Stankoven. This overabundance of talent forced players into accepting roles geared towards winning gold rather than showcasing themselves on the international stage. There was one player in particular that was asked to play 3rd line because of his solid 200-foot game. He was asked to go head-to-head with the opposing country’s best offensive talent and shut them down. This was not about personal stats; it was about team glory. That player was Wyatt Johnston. Canada did win Gold; Johnston filled his role as asked and his immense offensive talent remained a quiet secret.
If you think this is overstating how the pandemic disruption helped the Stars, fast forward to draft day 2021. The Stars are convinced Wyatt Johnston is their guy, but they also know that due to lack of exposure, he is not a hot commodity. This allows Dallas to trade down in the first round from the fifteenth pick to the twenty-third selection and still select their top target. In a deal with the Red Wings, Dallas acquired an additional second round pick.
Stars talent evaluators from Europe, led by European Scouting Director Kari Takko, are high on a big Russian Defenseman, Artem Grushnikov. The Western Canada brain trust, led by Amateur Scout Dennis Holland, were just as strong in their beliefs that a smallish dynamo from Kamloops named Logan Stankoven will be a future Star in uniform and a future star on the ice. In just six WHL games in 2020-21, the 5-foot 8-inch Blazer scored 10 points (7-3-10). Without a full draft-year season to gauge his talents, some teams were scared off by Stankoven’s stature, which once again benefitted Dallas. Rather than having to choose between two well-liked players, the trade with Detroit allowed General Manager Jim Nill to select them both. The Stars were able to turn COVID chaos into a draft that might rival 2017 for significance.
Last night, Wyatt Johnston scored his 11th goal of the season—the game winner in Minnesota against the Central Division rival Wild. The 19-year-old is tied for the NHL lead in goals among rookies and 5th overall in scoring by first year players with 17 points (11-6-17). As Johnston continues to develop at the NHL level, his name should start to enter all Calder Trophy conversations.
Logan Stankoven was named Player of the Game in Canada’s 11-0 thrashing of Austria at the World Junior Championships. Stankoven won gold at the U-18 level, won gold at the 2022 WJC and is trying to win the top spot one more time at the 2023 event. There is a Memorial Cup playoff in his future, then the next stop is his NHL debut with the Dallas Stars.
There is a strong chance that one or both of these players would not be in the Stars organization under normal circumstances. The trajectory and notoriety that would have come from a second full season in junior hockey would have made Johnston and Stankoven prime draft targets. In the first season back from the pandemic, Johnston won the OHL Player of the Year and Stankoven won the CHL Player of the Year. There is virtually no way either player would have been available at the spot they were selected by Dallas.
This extraordinary circumstance changed how players were evaluated in 2021 and the lack of hockey opportunity kept two of the Stars future cornerstones from showing their full potential. COVID changed our lives forever, but it also changed the trajectory of the Stars franchise for the better. For hockey fans in Texas, it is the one silver lining to a dark cloud we hope never to see again.